Friday, June 25, 2010

As a victims' family member and as a lawyer

Today Jeanne Bishop addresses the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and members of the MVFHR delegation meet with Japanese attorneys. Here is an excerpt from Jeanne's remarks:

I come before you in two capacities. I am a family member of murder victims. My younger sister and her husband and their unborn child were shot to death 20 years ago. I am also a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney who represents clients charged with serious crimes. Among the cases I have worked on are murder and death penalty cases, although those cases are not regularly part of the work I do on a daily basis. I am also an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

I am here today to talk about why these two roles—murder victims’ family member and lawyer—have led me to conclude that the death penalty does not work and should be abolished.

First, let me speak as a family member of a murder victim. My younger sister Nancy and her husband were a young couple who worked for the same company, who were saving money for the future, and who were happily expecting the birth of their first child. An intruder broke into their home, waited for them to arrive, and shot them to death. He shot my brother-in-law first, then pointed the gun at my younger sister and fired two shots into her pregnant abdomen. As my sister lay dying beside her husband, she wrote in her own blood next to him a heart and the letter “u," which symbolized, “I love you.” Her last word on her life was love. It is a message that lives in me and inspires me.

The killer did not know my younger sister and her husband. It was not a robbery. He simply killed them to see what it was like to kill someone. He was arrested and convicted of the crime and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Because the killer was just under the age of 17 at the time of the murders, he was not eligible for the death penalty under the law of my state. Some people asked if my family was disappointed that he would not be executed for the murders.

I am not disappointed. I am relieved. Killing another person would not bring my sister back. It would not lessen the pain I feel every year on her birthday, on every holiday when my family gathers without her, when I see a baby and think of her baby who was never born. It would not give me what, in English, we call “closure.” The love I had for my sister and my grief over losing her can never be closed, certainly not by shedding more blood and taking another life.

Nor would killing the murderer give me justice. His life could never equal theirs. His death could never pay for theirs. The justice given to my family with the punishment the killer received—life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—ensures that he will never walk the streets to kill again, that society is safe from him.

Finally, as a murder victims’ family member, I believe that participating in executing him would move me closer to who he is and away from who my sister was. He embraced death. She loved life. He mercilessly took the lives of innocent people. She was carrying life within her body when she died. She would never want her memorial to be the killing of another person.

Second, let me speak from my perspective as a lawyer. I was working as a corporate attorney for one of the world’s largest law firms before my younger sister’s death. When she was killed at age 25, I was 29 years old. I had already lived four years longer than she had on this earth. I realized then that life was short, and that to honor the memory of my sister, I could not waste one moment; I had to live a life of meaning and purpose worthy of her. I left the high salary and prestige of corporate law to represent the indigent as a public defender—that is, a lawyer for people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

In the United States, both the federal government and the majority of U.S. states have an active death penalty. There are some things lawyers in the U.S. know about the death penalty, whether we support the death penalty or oppose it.

First, in death penalty cases, as in every other case in the criminal justice system, we know that we make mistakes. We make mistakes because we are human beings and we are flawed. Sometimes, vital evidence is overlooked or lost. Witnesses lie or simply err in their identification of a criminal suspect. Police take shortcuts rather than thoroughly investigate a crime. People suspected of crime confess to crimes they have not committed. Judges make rulings that are wrong.

Death penalty cases, almost always murder cases, are particularly susceptible to error because they evoke a strong emotional response. The crimes are ghastly, and they cry out for justice. People want a quick arrest, trial and conviction. But an arrest made in haste often turns out to be wrong.

All these mistakes can end up convicting an innocent person. And the problem with the death penalty is that once the sentence is carried out, it is irrevocable. It cannot be taken back; the life lost is gone forever. In such a circumstance, the death penalty creates a new victim of homicide, adding to the injustice of the original crime, and leaves the real killer free to kill again.

The second thing we lawyers in the U.S. know is that the death penalty is expensive. In almost every case, we must spend money to find potential witnesses, to hire experts such as psychiatrists to examine defendants and testify about them, to gather evidence that could help our case. Appeals from death sentences are mandatory, whether the defendant in the case wishes to appeal or not. A single case can literally cost millions of dollars. Forty million dollars were spent on the trial and execution of Timothy McVeigh, who killed my friend Bud Welch’s only child Julie Marie along with 167 other people in a bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City. People studying the death penalty have rightly questioned whether our precious resources could be better spent on preventing crime from happening in the first place.

The third thing we lawyers in the U.S. know is that the death penalty does little to deter crime. I am from Chicago, in the State of Illinois. In my state, there are more than 100 chief prosecutors in separate jurisdictions who can each decide using his or her own criteria whether to seek the death penalty against a particular defendant. Without a uniform set of standards, prosecutors often make their decisions based on political considerations or public pressure. The result is that some areas of my state have many death penalty cases, while other areas of the state have few, so that what is considered deserving of death in one region is not considered deserving of death in another. The result is a complete lack of deterrence, since no one knows exactly what conduct will likely result in a death sentence.

We from MVFHR are here because we believe that despite the differences in our legal systems, we can join together to acknowledge that the death penalty all over the world, from the United States to Japan, from China to Iran, needs to be re-examined. It accomplishes little for crime victims but takes great risks with human life and precious human resources.

Japan has led the world, and continues to lead the world, in countless ways: in technology, innovation, education, the arts. My hope is that Japan will lead the world in this area, too, that by reconsidering its death penalty it will be a shining light for us in the United States and for all the world. That will not happen—it cannot happen—without all of you. The courage and commitment and excellence you bring to your work every day is needed in the death penalty debate now more than ever.

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